In December 2019, the outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Since that time, information has spread fast and wide, leaving many panicked and confused. Unfortunately, not all the information being spread is accurate. This is why the University of Irvine Infectious Disease Science Initiative hosted a public seminar on Monday, February 10 to discuss the current state of what is now officially known as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. 

The seminar served to introduce the community to public health officials and some of the world’s leading experts on the outbreak. The talk — which included instructions for returning travelers from China and infection control precautions — aimed to clarify viral fact from fiction. 

Many Southern California and L.A. residents have been rightfully fearful based on warnings they’ve seen online, and Sanghyuk Shin — the director of UCI’s Infectious Disease Science Initiative — who led the discussion, acknowledged the challenge of finding sources to trust, lamenting that “misinformation is spreading faster than the virus itself.”

“There’s been more social media noise from this than anything I’ve ever been close to,” agrees Matthew Zahn, the Orange County Health Care Agency’s medical director for communicable disease control. Citing local social media posts being shared regarding an Orange County outbreak, Zahn assured the audience that “none of it has been anywhere near reality at all.” 

Calming coronavirus fears, the expert on communicable disease admitted that while the risk of the virus is not small, measles is still much more infectious. If you have seen something online or heard a rumor about the outbreak that has caused you alarm, you aren’t alone. Many have experienced this disturbing trend of misinformation, and the Los Angeles Department of Public Health urges the public to do their homework.

In a recent press release, Public Health stated the following: “With rising reports of reduced patronage of Chinese-owned businesses, bullying and stigmatization on school and college campuses, and rampant xenophobia on social media, Public Health is encouraging people to focus on facts, not fear. The fact is novel coronavirus is not currently spreading in the community in Los Angeles County nor in the United States, and immediate risk to the general public in Los Angeles County is low. Residents can continue to enjoy all their usual activities and feel comfortable eating and shopping at the restaurants and stores they normally would.”

“People have a right to be afraid, but must understand that outbreaks and pandemics are human tragedies that impact us all directly or indirectly as one diverse community,” says Dr. Muntu Davis, County Health Officer. “Embracing, not stigmatizing, others and spreading accurate information about what’s happening locally is what helps manage our fear and both the individual and collective actions needed to protect our entire community.”

Here are some key takeaways residents should know about the coronavirus: 

  • The risk of infection to residents is believed to be low.
  • There is only one case of novel coronavirus in Los Angeles County, in a non-resident traveler from Wuhan City.
  • Orange County has only had one case of novel coronavirus, a man who is isolated and in good condition.
  • There has been no evidence that person-to-person transmission has occurred in either counties.

Angelenos should all remain cautious, however, as Zahn says there is still a risk of the outbreak carrying over into the country and local communities. Public Health emphasizes that this risk is low, however, explaining that there have only been 12 cases of the virus identified in the United States. While they do expect more cases to arise, significant measures have been taken to limit the spread of the virus and reduce threat to the American population.

Accurate and up-to-date information regarding the 2019 Novel Coronavirus can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. According to the CDC, it is unclear at this time how easily or sustainably the virus is spreading between people. In an abundance of caution, strict travel limits have been levied and travelers that have possibly been in contact with the virus are being put in preventative quarantine. 

Symptoms of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (also known as 2019-nCoV) include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms can appear between two to 14 days after exposure. 

Health experts agree that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to do the following: 

  • Avoid close contact with those who are ill.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Stay home when sick or showing symptoms of illness.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, making sure to properly dispose of the tissue.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects, including surfaces.
  • Follow the CDC’s recommendations for using facemask:
    • The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear facemask to protect themselves from respiratory viruses, including 2019-nCoV.
    • Facemask should be used by people who show symptoms of 2019 novel coronavirus, in order to protect others from the risk of getting infected. 

There is no current vaccination for the coronavirus. The Orange County Health Care Agency’s medical director of communicable disease control stresses the importance of getting flu vaccinations, explaining ““what we don’t want to have is flu season and coronavirus season at the same time.” The panel agreed that currently, the flu season poses a far greater risk to the nation.

While there is no specific antiviral treatment for the coronavirus, anyone concerned that they may be a carrier should contact their local healthcare provider immediately. Given that common cold and flu symptoms are so similar, local providers are available for all concerns. 

How You Can Help

The following organizations are collecting donations to support those affected by the coronavirus: 

  • Direct Relief: Direct Relief is coordinating with public health authorities in China and the U.S.  to provide protective equipment like N95 respirator masks.
  • MedShare: MedShare is sending supplies to aid medical personnel working with patients at the origin of the outbreak. Currently, they have sent 800,000 masks to Hubei Province. 
  • GlobalGiving: With more than 50,000 cases of coronavirus cases confirmed globally, donations to this organization support response efforts in China. 
  • CDC Foundation: This nonprofit organization has activated their Emergency Response Fund to provide support to emerging response needs, including United States’ preparedness. Donations go towards efforts like creating guidance for clinicians for testing, developing a diagnostic test to detect the virus and implementing public health entry screenings at U.S. airports. 
  • Heart to Heart International: As part of the World Health Organizations (WHO) system of Emergency Medical Teams, Heart to Heart International is actively preparing for response which includes procuring specialized equipment critical for preventing the spread of infection.